Pretty much every writer wants their novel to be stunningly original.
But we also know that it is impossible to be entirely original. To write an entirely original novel would result in something that actually looks nothing like a novel at all.
The quest for originality is not really about being totally unique, it’s about balancing original and familiar elements. You can’t write a novel on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich any more than you can write a novel about a boy wizard called Harry.
Since it’s impossible to be totally original and you can’t get away with totally copying, there is a place between the two where great ideas live. Maybe your boy wizard discovers his magic while being enslaved by an evil king. This idea isn’t entirely original, but it isn’t copying either.
And remember, just because someone else wrote about wizards, doesn’t mean you can’t write about wizards. I often have writers emailing me in a panic because a novel written by Joe Schmoe in 2002 had a kinda-sorta similar premise to their novel. Relax!
It’s okay if other novels are similar to yours. As long as you didn’t deliberately steal the work, it most likely isn’t even similar enough for people to notice. Don’t forget that execution counts for a lot more than the nugget of idea at the center of the story.
So When is Unoriginality Truly a Problem?
Though being completely original is not necessary, many amateur writers still struggle with originality. Usually those who are struggling fall into two groups:
- Writers who never considered whether their idea is original.
- Writers who panic over any detail of their novel that has anything to do with any detail of another already published novel.
In other words, if you’re trying to be original, you’ve probably succeeded. For those who aren’t trying to be original (or for those who are trying but still fear they are failing), let’s look at some reasons unoriginality might be a problem.
Someone Beat You to the Punch
This is the rarest situation to ever arise, but it seems to be the one writers are most often worried about.
Coincidences do happen in the publishing industry, and it is possible that another writer came up with an idea that is startlingly similar to yours, got it published, and had a high level of success before you even started querying agents.
If you think this happened to you, take a deep breath and a step back and examine the similarities. Read this other book. Is it really that similar? Are they similar enough that they could be confused for each other? If not, then you’re probably okay.
You Knowingly Copied Another Work
Sometimes writers get inspired by other books, TV shows, and movies. Sometimes this “inspiration” can look a lot like copying. If you’ve done this, you know who you are.
It’s okay to “borrow” story elements for your novel so long as they can be disguised and couched within other original ideas. So again, don’t get bent out of shape if you have an element or two of your story that’s similar to another work. But if you’ve lifted the entire premise and the main characters’ personalities are identical, you are likely to be called on it.
Your Novel is a Trope Plus a Trope Plus a Trope
A trope is any element of a novel that is familiar or predictable. A trope is not inherently bad, but overused tropes tend to drag down a novel by making it feel expected and overly familiar. This can be overcome by including more original ideas.
Essentially, you need to strike a balance between original ideas and tropes. The more tired the trope, the more original ideas you need to couch it in. If you have one stunningly amazing original idea, you can probably get away with relying on lots of tropes for the other components of the novel.
If your novel is about an orphan who teams up with a wise wizard to learn how to harness his power and fulfill a prophecy, you’re going to have to use a lot of original ideas to offset the tropes.
You Don’t Read Enough
If you don’t read, or if you don’t read modern novels, or if you don’t read in the genre you want to write in, you won’t know the tropes within that genre. I’m surprised by how often I encounter aspiring writers who say they don’t read. If you don’t read, you are bound to think you have an original idea even if it is the most overused trope in the genre.
I can’t overstate the importance of reading modern novels in your genre if you want to get published.
The Writing Itself is Cliché
Sometimes the problem with a novel is not the story itself, but the writing. If your writing style relies on a lot of cliches, even original ideas can sound worn out.
It’s normal to use clichés in a first draft because those are the phrases that flow quickly and easily through our fingertips, but those phrases need to be changed during revisions to reflect your unique and original voice.
What to do when your writing is unoriginal?
If beta readers, editors, or critique partners tell you that your novel is not unique or if you just have this niggling feeling in the back of your mind, remember that you essentially have two paths to a successful novel:
- Write a familiar idea better than it’s ever been done before.
- Write a familiar idea with a unique twist.
If you’re an amateur writer, chances are you aren’t going to be able to execute an idea in the best way it’s ever been done, so you are most likely going to need to choose the second option.
Putting a unique spin on an idea that’s already been done is actually quite easy with a couple of brainstorming sessions. I’m not going to go into how to brainstorm here because we already talked about creativity last week.
Originality is rarely a problem if you’re planning your novel in advance, but it becomes a big problem if your novel is already written and you realize it’s not offering any new twists. Adding a unique spin might require deconstructing, restructuring, and rewriting your book, which totally sucks, but it’s the only way to revive a novel that truly lacks originality.
Consider what is original about your novel. What unique twist makes your novel stand out? How is it different from other novels with a similar premise?
If you don’t know of any novels like yours or if you don’t read modern books in your genre, do a search for novels with a similar premise and get a sense of your competition.
Identifying what is unique about your novel is important because the unique twist is your selling point. It’s what should be highlighted in your query letter to tempt agents and editors.
If your novel is original, pat yourself on the back and see if you can’t bring that originality to the forefront of your query.
If your novel is unoriginal, dig deep and brainstorm interesting twists that could make you stand out from the competition.
What makes your novel unique? Do you ever worry that your novel is not original?